“The United States is engaged in a war of ideas – and it’s losing.”
This is the opening line of J.M. Berger’s recent piece in for The Atlantic, one that looks at the narratives coming from both sides, and how and why America is perceived to be losing. Berger does not necessarily agree with the above statement; instead he uses it as a point of exploration for investigating how ISIS’s narrative has been constructed, and how it can best be torn apart.
Berger points out, “The myth that America’s narrative is losing to ISIS’s persists despite the fact that millions of people are fleeing ISIS territories, while mere thousands have traveled to join the group. It persists despite the fact that the Islamic State’s ideological sympathizers make up less than 1 percent of the world’s population,even using the most hysterically alarmist estimates, and the fact that active, voluntary participants in its caliphate project certainly make up less than a tenth of a percent.”
Regardless of widespread condemnation of ISIS’s actions, and vigilant counter-propaganda being produced, ISIS’s strategic narrative has proven to be stronger, more comprehensive, and ultimately more successful in many ways than those meant to counter it.
One narrative that ISIS has built is one of fear. The terrorist attacks that occur with more and more regularity are meant to incite just that – terror. Through these attacks the group has also built a narrative of strength – it would not succeed in continuing to gain recruits if the group was perceived as weak. ISIS as a force has promoted and ridden on these narratives through widespread use of social media, a phenomenon that Berg points out could only happen in this type of highly networked world. Producing propaganda videos and utilizing Twitter and Facebook are two ways that the group has succeeded in disseminating their message to a huge audience.
Despite the fact that social media sites continually try to block members of the group from posting, multiple second-hand videos of beheadings, re-posted by other (not necessarily extremist) users, each have over 1 million views. By contrast, the US State Department produced counter-propaganda video Welcome to the “Islamic State” Land (part of the Think Again Turn Away campaign), posted on the Department of State’s official YouTube channel, has only around 880,000 views. It cannot be denied that ISIS’s propaganda has had a hugely wide reach, regardless of what percentage of viewers agree with their ideas.
Part of this is shock value. As Simon Cottee writes for Defense One, “ISIS has beheading videos. The CSCC doesn’t. Beheading videos are shocking and repugnant. But they are also weirdly fascinating – and they go viral for this reason.”
Here, he hits on another key point – ISIS is succeeding through shock and fear, not through the strength of their ideas. In what has been presented as a “war of ideas” or an “ideological war,” ISIS’s actual ideas are the weakest part of the group’s narrative.
Berger claims, “ISIS is not succeeding because of the strength of its ideas. Instead, it exploits an increasingly networked world to sell its violent and apocalyptic ideology to a microscopic minority – people who are able to discover each other from a distance and organize collective action in ways that were virtually impossible before the rise of the internet.”
One way to successfully build a strategic counter-narrative is to capitalize on this weakness. This is being done by campaigns such as #notmyname, which disseminates a powerful anti-ISIS message from Muslims themselves, invalidating ISIS’s ideological message and incorrect interpretations of Islam.
By and large, however, this has not been the approach up until this point. Rather than attempting to disrupt ISIS’s process, the US has focused on diminishing the appeal of terrorism. The Think Again Turn Away video is one example of this, aimed at those believed to be at risk for joining ISIS by somewhat sarcastically highlighting the true atrocities taking place. In his article Berger quotes Will McCants in The ISIS Apocalypse: “Reducing the mass appeal of ISIS is pointless, given that it doesn’t have mass appeal.” The audience that ISIS targets for recruitment is miniscule compared to those who rally against the group.
Terrorism does not have mass appeal. It appeals to a small minority of (admittedly dangerous and concerning) people. Perhaps then, instead of focusing our narrative on these minorities, a better strategic narrative would be to rally together global communities against ISIS (such as the Islamic community in various nations around the world), showing unity despite cultural differences, and exhibiting strength in a non-violent way through the force of rational ideas.